Bad Astronomy Newsletter #7

May 7, 2018 Issue #7

If you subscribe I’ll do what I can to get Firefly a second season.

Note: I can do nothing.


As Dave Barry said, “Poli” = many and “tics” = blood-sucking parasites

I follow the House (of Representatives) Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on Twitter because I need my daily dose of iron(y). I mean, this committee used to be all about the science, but since the GOP took it over and put Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in charge, it’s become not much more than a fossil fuel industry shill when it comes to energy.

Smith himself is, not to put too fine a point on it, just awful. He is the very definition of a climate science denier, going so far as to attack climate scientists and using wasteful subpoenas to threaten their ability to work. Here’s a fun synopsis of his shenanigans.

So I was shocked, and I do mean truly shocked, when the committee tweeted this:

Sci,Space,&Tech Cmte@HouseScience

“To maintain America’s global standing as the leader in science, we must meet our international commitments & support this basic research that will lead to transformative clean energy technologies."- @HouseScience Chair @LamarSmithTX21 in @realclearpolicy

May 2, 2018
If you follow the link to the article penned by Smith, in it he actually admits climate change exists, and mentions that reducing our carbon footprint is a good idea.

What. The. Actual. What.

While I welcome this apparent change of heart, I am vastly suspicious of him given my years of experience with his anti-science baloney. When I tweeted about this, my scicomm colleague Dave Mosher replied with this:

Dave Mosher@DaveMosher

Clean energy companies are increasingly donating to Republicans. I'll let you decide the correlation vs. causation factor here.

May 3, 2018
Ah, that’s interesting. Clean energy companies are donating to Republicans! That makes some sense, I suppose. Also, another scicomm colleague, Maddie Stone, said this:

Maddie Stone@themadstone

He’s been letting loose as retirement nears....

May 2, 2018
Hmmmm. I’ll note that Smith is pushing for fusion energy, but that is decades away at best. We need solutions now. Before now. Years ago. One reason we don’t have them is because of Smith and people like him. So again, I view all this with a highly jaundiced eye.

Still, it hardly matters anymore, since Smith is retiring after the midterms in November. That district is pretty red — it went for Trump in 2016 by a margin of +10 — but we’ll see. The Democrats have been flipping a lot of districts with close to that margin. This would be a nice one to get.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday April 30: Gaia: This is not a photo of the night sky

Tuesday May 1: A *ridiculously* huge image of spectacular star birth

Wednesday May 2: Rocket News: Blue Origin, SpaceX, and the future of spaceflight

Thursday May 3: Aliasing illusion makes 3D sculptures wiggle and gyrate

Friday May 4: NASA hopes to launch its next big Mars lander, InSight, tomorrow! [Note: InSight launched on time Saturday morning and is on its way to Mars!]

I recommend

Something I think you’ll like

I get asked a lot what planetarium software I use. There are quite a few out there, and many are quite good. Some years ago though I got Sky Safari, and I’ve found it fits all my needs pretty well.

The same folks who made that have a new app out called Orbitrack, which identifies satellites in the sky, too. They sent me a copy to look at, and I like it! You can set it for your location and time, and it’ll tell you what satellites are up and display their path across the sky. You can find info on each bird (some are true satellites, while many are rocket boosters still orbiting the planet — I mean, boosters are still satellites since they orbit the Earth, bit they’re not satellite satellites, if you catch my meaning) and change the view to show you where it is over the Earth or in space.

[Credit: Southern Stars]

Actually there are quite a few different views. You can show the whole Earth with all the satellites around it, which is a bit scary until you realize just how big space is (satellite collisions are extremely rare), but it does show you how busy things are up there. You can also show a ground map that shows the satellite’s path over the Earth, and a circle around the satellite that shows who on the ground can see it. There’s also a “live view” where you can see the part of the sky you point the phone to 

Speaking of which, it also comes with an augmented reality mode for the live view. If you have the gear (for example, Google Cardboard glasses which you can find on Amazon (affiliate link)) then you get a 3D view of the sky with the satellite in it, and it moves as you move your phone around to track what you’re seeing in real time. It adds a fun layer to satellite viewing.

An app like this can be really useful if you’re out and see a satellite you can’t identify. I’ll sometimes have my ‘scope out with a group of people, and it becomes a game to see who can spot a satellite. I’ll be sure to have Orbitrack fired up so we can find out what we’re seeing!

Right now it’s just out for iOS (check the App Store!) but it’s coming to Android soon too.

Life Hacks

Not what you might expect from an astronomer, but in my defense I am alive

I’ve known Wil Wheaton for a few years now; how we met is a whole fun story for another time. I have always found him to be intelligent, warm, funny, and kind… but it wasn’t until relatively recently I found out he is living his life with chronic depression. And that’s because he has the courage to talk about it publicly, despite society’s stigmas.

He’s been outspoken about destigmatizing mental illness for years now, and he wrote a truly wonderful speech he gave at a meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It’ll take you maybe ten minutes to read the whole thing, and it is oh, oh so worth it.

So please, read Wil’s thoughts on mental illness.

If you live with a mental illness or know someone who does — and the odds are very likely you do — this will hopefully open your eyes, your mind, and your heart about what it’s like to live with it.

And please: Share it. It deserves to be read by as many people as possible.

Pic o’ the Letter

A cool or lovely or mind-bending astronomical image/video with a short description so you can grok it

HiRISE is a camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the fourth rock from the Sun since 2006. Yes, 2006. The camera is just fantastic, and takes hi-res images of the surface. One of my favorite kind of images is when they take two of the same feature from slightly different angles, allowing them to be combined into an anaglyph, a red/green or red/blue 3D image.

[Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona]

This one is so cool! It’s a crater near the Martian equator (11° south) taken in northern winter when the Sun was about 53° above horizon, so you get some nice contrast on the ground. [You can find another version here.] You can see a lovely mound in the middle with cracks in it, plus sand dunes rippling across the crater floor. There are interesting features all around it, too.

Of course, you’ll need the red/green or red/blue glasses to see it in 3D. Happily, you can find pretty inexpensive anaglyph glasses online (affiliate link). I bought a pair for a dollar! Also, they’re very flattering:

OK, maybe not so much. But still, cool to have. 

Anaglyphs are one product that comes out of HiRISE, but they post tons of amazing images of Mars in grayscale and in color. I strongly urge you to follow the HiRISE Twitter feed for more. It’ll remind you that Mars is a beautiful place.

Et alia 

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